To Kataragama - 2 :
Sacred Area of Kataragama (Kataragama, Sri Lanka)

Even a good thing or a wicked thing, deity who fulfills all wishes is the Murgan deity or Skanda deity, that is, the Kataragama deity. One of Sri Lanka's most sacred places to worship that deity is Kataragama that is named after the deity’s name.

The place near the southern tip of the island is the farthest land for the Sri Lankan world. As we go down to aim for Kataragama from the Hill Country, the air is drier, the temperature is higher and trees become sparser. I realize to be at the end by the heat that I feel through the five senses.

The southern area of the town is a busy gateway district where lodges and souvenir shops are lined meanwhile the northern area beyond the main road is a shrine area. As going through the forest of the shrine area, the Manic river like the barrier is first to appear. Food stands stand in front and the shallow river is full of believers to take a bath. After the bridge, the profane things disappear except for the stalls of the flower arrangement, and the atmosphere gets more sacred. The gate that can be seen at the end of a wide Boulevard is the entrance to the real sanctuary. Footwear is prohibited beyond the gate.

Kataragama is a common sacred place of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Originally it was a sacred place of indigenous Vedda. However, according to the legend of the Buddhist side, Buddha who visited here in the 6th century BC sanctified here, and, according to the myth of Hinduism, the sacred place in the south confronting the Mt. Kailash in the north of India is this Kataragama and its deity is the Murgan.

Though it had been included in the Buddhist region for a long time and had been supervised by Buddhist, it seemed to have been a sacred place where Hinduism was strong. Moreover, considerably later, it also became a sacred place for Muslim. The Kataragama deity also began to receive strong faith from the entire Sri Lankan people beyond the difference of the religions without one's knowledge.

In the latter half of the 20th century when Sri Lanka has become independent, the maintenance as a sacred place beyond religions began by the government. On the other hand, the Sinhalese priority policy seems to have cast a shadow over this place as well. Gananath Obeyesekere writes in a great book of a religious studies on Kataragama “Medusa's Hair“ that Buddhist color gets stronger little by little in Kataragama by replacing the Tamil names of the Hindu ritual articles with different words of Sinhala's closest sound or including Buddhist facilities in the route of Hinduism rituals.

When entering the gate, it is a big square. In the center, three small Temples of Hindu stand behind a Bodhi tree. The temple on the right hand worships the Kataragama deity but it is unbelievably modest.

Beyond the square, a big approach with quite different scale from the previous scenery appears suddenly. Far into the distance rises the Buddhist stupa Kiri Vehera that was built in the 1st century BC. The Kiri Vehera is said to have been devastated until the middle of the 20th century, so I guesses that this excessively grand approach would be maintained to show off Buddhist dominance over Hinduism under the Sinhalese priority policy after the independence.

“Medusa's Hair“ described a situation that spiritual repression led to religious behavior based on hearing to believers, triggered by the author encountering with twisted hair believers who were mostly Hindu. For the symptoms, that might be dealt together as a mental illness in the Occident, Sri Lanka society has room to accept such believers as a mediator with deities. The book clarified the difference of the interpretation on mental state according to cultural differences.

This time, I could not almost find Kataragama with a strong religious atmosphere which was represented by believers of twisted hair described in the book and believers of a religious penance whose face and body are pierced with arrows and bars or who practice fire-walking and who are often introduced in the description on Kataragama. Hindus, who are deeply into faith, would be hidden under the shadow of too many ordinary Buddhists who has come to the festival and popularizes the scared place ?

To Japanese Version

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Within the walking distance of downtown Kataragama.




2008.01 Photos in English version, and photos and text in Japanese version

2018.01 Change of photos and English text

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Maha Devale

Kiri Vehera

Photo by Daigo Ishii